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Matthew Tamsett | USLHC | USA

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The perils of finding things out.

– by Matthew Tamsett, US LHC

As of last week I’ve moved to CERN for the summer. It’s great to be back, it’s so vibrant and full of life here. However, it’s also a very busy place, and a place where, if you’re not careful, you can lose yourself in an infinite sea of meetings.

When I first came to CERN, several years ago, I found myself falling into this trap. I tried to attend every meeting that was relevant to me, and simply found that I wasn’t spending the time I needed on my research. I then recognised that a balance needed to be struck somewhere.

As the CERN folk-law tells it; once upon a time a committee was formed at CERN to look into the optimisation of meetings (so we didn’t all get lost at sea). Several ideas were circulated, including a rather shocking proposal to ban all laptops from meetings. I don’t think this idea would have gone down very well.

As the rumour goes, the committee was eventually disbanded because they couldn’t find the time to meet.

This tenuously links to what I wanted to talk about in this post. That is the 1981 Horizon documentary entitled “The pleasure of finding things out“, about Richard Feynman.

Feynman was an excellent speaker and this well-made programme allows the great man to wax freely in his inimitable style. I very much encourage everyone to watch it.

Among the many thoughts that stand out to me from this (and there are lots), one is that an idea in formation is like a house of cards. The idea itself is made up of a precarious stack of individual points (or cards) and requires a long period of uninterrupted thought to complete. Just like the house of cards, a nascent idea can easily fall apart if you’re distracted.

His solution is to cultivate the “myth of irresponsibility”, that is the idea that he can’t be trusted to take on extra responsibilities and that he doesn’t care about these responsibilities or the students. Of course this a is complete fabrication, but as he points out, it does enable him to free up the time he needs to work.

This is not necessarily something I’d try personally, but maybe it’s a more realistic idea for the CERN committee to propose than the removal of laptops from auditoriums.

As well as being one of the most important physicists of modern times, Feynman is also widely acknowledged as being one of the great educators and by watching this documentary you really get a sense for why this was.

His passion for science, and for life, shines through. As well as healthy doses of self knowledge, disrespect for authority and doubt. Doubt, he says, is in incredibly important part of science. He points out that one must be very careful in checking ones experimental results and data, before rushing to any conclusions.

The documentary ends with Feynman saying “I think it’s much more interesting to live with not knowing, than to have answers that might be wrong”, and I completely agree.

CERN is an excellent forum for checking results. The very state of belonging to a collaboration of several thousand physicists means that there exists the capability to cross check each others results very thoroughly. It also gives us the opportunity to collectively achieve things which we couldn’t individually, thus enabling us to get the very best out of our detector and the LHC machine.

And inevitably this is where the meetings come in. In order to work well as a collaboration meetings are a necessity, and unfortunately bigger the collaboration becomes the more meetings seem to proliferate. As a result each of us ends up with less time to build our respective houses of cards. Although in the end, the process of collaboration means anything we do come up with, should be very well thought through and checked.

In conclusion, it’s good to be at CERN, despite all the meetings.